Picking ‘The Metamorphosis’ out of Kafka’s stories feels a bit like saying your favourite Beatles album is The Best of the Beatles, but I chose it because I had a transformational experience on my second reading. I first read it in my teens, when I understood this to be the ne plus ultra of young alienation, and I didn’t like it. The story was too long, the central horror of the transformation felt somehow undetailed, and what seemed to be the most compelling element – Gregor’s transformation – became increasingly sidelined in favour of the family’s troubles, culminating in a final scene, in which Gregor’s sister Grete stands up on a tram, that seemed utterly inconsequential to me. Some years later, I returned to the story and it was a revelation. Some of my most enduring experiences with art have involved a work that I’ve disliked on first impression; the experience of understanding its complexity or tone on a second reading seems to double the pleasure. When reading again, I realised that it was a mistake to assume that Gregor was the centre of the story’s gravity, and that Kafka’s bone-dry humour is easily missed. The final scene – where Gregor’s pupal sacrifice precedes the butterfly-like opening up of Grete – clicked into place, and the beauty and sadness of the story came into focus. And then I read all the Kafka I could find.
First published in German, as ‘Die Verwandlung’, in Die Weißen Blätter, 1915. Widely translated in English. Hoffman’s translation is from Metamorphosis & Other Stories, Penguin Classics, 2015